There is a NY Times article about Adnat Admadi's view on banking regulation. Her focus is on increasing capital requirements. Like most free bankers, I see increased capital as desirable. The article mentions that most firms don't have capital requirements at all. Most firms are mostly funded by equity because lenders insist on it. According to the article, banks are different because depositors are protected by the government from loss.
And that points to why I see increased capital as desirable. Before deposit insurance, banks did keep much more capital. At least in the U.S., it was the introduction of deposit insurance that resulted in substantial decreases in bank capital ratios.
However, even without deposit insurance, banks were mostly funded by deposits. Why?
It is because banks are financial intermediaries. They are not simply suppliers of loans. The deposits that banks issue to fund loans provide services to depositors. Traditionally, these were monetary services.
Consider a grocery store. It buys food products from wholesalers and then sells food, mostly to the final consumers. The grocery store must finance its operation--the store, equipment, inventory, and so on. The typical grocery story is mostly financed by equity, I suppose. But there is no notion that the owners of the grocery store must have equity equal to a substantial portion of total sales of groceries.
A bank also has a building and equipment. But its total assets also include loans and investments. These are similar to the grocery store's sales of food. Further, the deposits the bank uses to fund these assets are more similar to the grocery store's purchases of food from suppliers rather than the instruments issued toequity and debt holders that finance the grocery store.
While bank-issued currency provided important benefits in the past, and could do so in the future, for many years these monetary services involved checkable deposits. While checkable deposits have come to make up a remarkably small portion of bank liabilities, at least part of the reason has been the development of sweep accounts. By sweeping funds out of checkable deposits and into something else right before the time they must be reported, banks not only avoid regulation, but money and banking statistics are distorted.
However, there is little doubt banks have long issued deposit liabilities whose primary special characteristic is that they are guaranteed by the government. Certificates of deposit have a lot in common with commercial paper, but the bank liabilities are guaranteed by the government.
While additional capital for banks is desirable, the key problem with capital requirements is that the purpose of capital should be to serve as a buffer. That means that the buffer should be used when banks suffer losses. And so, when a bank has exceptional difficulties, its ample capital buffer should be allowed to decrease without interfering with the continued business of the bank in both issuing deposits and making new sound loans. Obviously, a bank should then rebuild its capital as it recovers.
Giving discretion to the regulators is probably worse than a strict rule. During good times, when banks have few loses, so what if loose definitions of capital allow requirements to be met on paper. And then, when banks are losing money, that is when the regulators get tough and make sure that banks rebuild their capital. Just when banks should be using the cushion they should have built up during good times, the regulator starts strict enforcement.
The problem with a required capital ratio is that restricting new loans and using the funds to pay down deposits (or accumulating "safe assets" with low capital requirements,) is not desirable. Of course, if it is only a single small bank in a healthy banking system that must shrink its balance sheet to meet the requirements, the effect on the economy is small. This is especially true because other banks would be in a position to expand deposits and loans. If necessary, they could issue new equity to take advantage of the profits from the added business.
But what happens if many banks are in difficulty at the same time? Having all banks shrink their balance sheets at the same time is not a good thing.
Further, as mentioned in the article, there will be a constant tendency for financial innovation aimed at getting around the regulation. If those quasi-banks suffer runs, the run will be to the well-capitalized "safe" banking sector. Those banks should be rapidly expanding in such a scenario. Requiring that such banks raise capital (or even postpone paying dividends) will interfere with such a needed expansion.
For example, during the financial crisis of 2008, investment banks were issuing quasi-deposits to fund quasi-mortgage loans. They were shadow banks. When there was a loss in confidence, and the quasi-depositors ceased rolling over their overnight funds, they received payment in their conventional checkable accounts and simply held the funds at conventional banks. Did the supply of money decrease? Yes, if overnight repurchase agreements issued by investment banks are counted. Or was it the demand for money increased? Yes, if only checkable deposits issued by conventional banks count as money. Regardless, what needed to happen is for conventional banks to expand their deposits and their lending. Capital requirements made that more difficult. (Of course, the fact that the commercial banks were also under diversified by being over invested in real estate loans made the problem doubly difficult.)
In my view, rather than requiring banks to fund their asset portfolio with some fixed ratio of capital relative to deposits, a better approach is to make the monetary liabilities that provide the rationale for banking more like equity.
First, there should be an option clause that allows banks to stop a run. Banks need to be able to postpone payment, though the banks should pay penalty interest. In other words, depositors should be compensated for any postponement with bonus interest. Further, the suspended deposits should be negotiable. In particular, other banks should be able to accept them for deposit either at par or at a discount.
Second, if a bank is insolvent, then each depositor should suffer a write down of their deposit balance with compensation by equity--with the reorganized bank being well-capitalized. And this reorganization of banks should be rapid. Days, not months.
Kevin Dowd once explained it well. Closing failed banks for months or more makes as much sense as wheeling out hospital patients into the street because the hospital has financial problems.
If banks have government deposit insurance, then these changes can be required as a condition of continuing that insurance. Of course, the real point is that with these sorts of reforms, banks might be able to operate without deposit insurance. And if banks have no deposit insurance, then they can maintain their own liquidity and capital policies in order to attract depositors.
Further, as soon as we explore systematic issues, the nature of the monetary regime becomes paramount. A desirable nominal anchor--such as nominal GDP level targeting would help. Further, avoiding a monetary base that has no nominal risk and a zero nominal yield is also desirable.
A century ago, the nominal anchor was the fixed price of gold, and gold served as a base money with zero nominal risk and a zero nominal yield. Those days are gone. The banking system does not need to be able to withstand a massive shift from everything else to gold, which would require a massive deflation of nominal output and nominal income.
Yes, a 30 percent capital ratio might make sense with a gold standard. Maybe it is wise when hand-to-hand paper currency is the fundamental monetary base and central bankers insist on using a nominal interest rate instrument to target inflation. In my view, those are the policies that need some radical revision.